English Plus+ News, February 2002

Suddenly a Noble Word becomes Politically Loaded...

It is fascinating how meanings of words can change over time. Many times the changes are gradual as speakers begin to understand words differently. Sometimes the changes are intentional as a discovery or political party changes the meaning or significance of a word. Sometimes people misuse a word to suggest something that the original did not mean. Usually they do this to make someone or something appear nobler or nastier. Since the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001, Americans have seen one word used in a way quite different from its traditional meaning. That word in a moment. First we want to establish that the meanings of words can change over time.

Some words get better or ameliorate over time. The medieval English play Everyman, recorded in the late 1400's, describes a woman of questionable virtue as being "nice." Back then nice meant "having loose morals." In subsequent years, that word was seen as first being complimentary, though still immoral. Eventually the immoral sense was lost. The word was simply complimentary. Now we sing a song at Christmas time that tells us naughty and nice are opposites!

Some words worsen or experience pejoration over time. In the 1600's, in both the American colonies and in England, the word hussy was simply a contraction of housewife. Somewhere along the way, the word began to be used ironically--calling a woman a "hussy" or "housewife" when she was not faithful as a wife is supposed to be. By the nineteenth century, the ironic meaning became the accepted meaning.

Enter Politics

Sometimes words have different meanings because of different ideologies or beliefs. Political and theological distinctions and disputes are often over the meaning of words. German Communist writer Wolfgang Leonhard wrote that the most popular person on Western radio broadcasts to Eastern Europe was novelist Arthur Koestler. Koestler was a former Communist who understood the Communist system from the inside. Leonhard said that Koestler was the only person who understood what the word freedom meant to a Communist. When other broadcasters used the word, they were not taken as seriously because the Communists had a definition quite different from what the word means in Western free market republics!

During the Cold War, the United States and the Soviet Union would sometimes be supporting opposite sides in a civil war, but both sides would call the party that they supported freedom fighters.

What Is in a Word?

I admit that I have been disturbed recently by the use of the word martyr. It has become a word that, when used in certain contexts, labels the speaker as a terrorist or terrorist sympathizer. It is a far cry from what John Foxe in his Acts and Monuments (a.k.a. Book of Martyrs) had in mind.

The word martyr is a Greek word that means "witness." A martyr was a witness to an event or a witness called to testify in a legal matter. Because Greek was the language of the New Testament and the early Church, speakers of other languages would adopt Greek words in their own languages, but they would often have a specifically religious context. This would happen in English. In English, a witness was a person who personally experienced an event or who was called to testify in a legal situation. A martyr was a person called to testify about God in a legal situation and killed because of his own testimony of belief in God. The implication has always been primarily that the person testified in some way about his or her belief and was killed because of that belief.

I think many people understand where I am going with this. We were told that Osama bin Laden called the attack on the World Trade Center and Pentagon a "martyrdom operation." Surviving family members of suicide bombers and killers in Lebanon, Palestine, and Israel are given approximately ten thousand dollars each by Iraq as a kind of life insurance payment. The term the Iraqi government uses for these attackers is martyrs.

What Is a Martyr?

The dictionary which I refer to is the Funk and Wagnalls. Its main definition of martyr is "one who submits to death rather than forswear his religion." The other definitions have to do with suffering or dying unjustly. The implication is always that the person is a victim. To call a soldier who dies in battle or anyone who commits suicide a martyr is to twist the meaning of the word.

This is written in order to emphasize accuracy in language. While the term martyr comes from the Greek and is most commonly used when referring to Christians, it could refer to members of other religions. Some noncombatant Muslims in the Balkans who were killed by Serbian "ethnic cleansing" could be termed martyrs. They were apparently singled out because of their religion.

However, fighters on either side who were killed in battle would not be considered martyrs because they were fighting, regardless of how they died. People who take up arms realize that there is the possibility that they might be killed in combat. If they die in battle, they may be heroes, but they are not martyrs. That is especially true of people on suicide missions. How can they be martyrs? Is a suicide attacker forcing himself to recant his belief and then killing himself because he refused?

Why This Choice of Words?

Let us understand the importance of word choices. Why are some propagandists using the word martyr and martyrdom to describe suicide operations? The reason has to do with connotation. Martyr generally has a positive connotation. Martyrs are victims of injustice who refuse to bow under great pressure. Such people are considered heroes by others who share their beliefs. They are not military heroes, but have shown courage nevertheless.

The word suicide, on the other hand, has a negative connotation. Most religions consider suicide a form of murder. Even those who do not have religious beliefs usually consider suicide tragic and a waste of a life. In a combat situation, sometimes a person will give up his life to save the lives others; but he is not taking his own life, his enemies are. We may call his action "suicidal" in the sense that he was taking a high risk; but there was the possibility that he could have survived, and at any rate he was not killing himself.

Perhaps we have overdone this explanation, but suicide is not martyrdom. Let us not confuse the two.

Like the words "nice" or "hussy," perhaps the meaning of the word will change over time. However, as of the year 2002, let the record show that suicide and martyrdom are two different things.

A Note on Our Dictionary of Choice

Why do we use the Funk and Wagnalls Practical Standard Dictionary? We have three reasons.

For more on the difference between descriptive and prescriptive dictionaries, see our November 2000 newsletter--online at http://englishplus.com/news/news1100.htm . For what it is worth, the main author of Grammar Slammer, now an English teacher, at one time sold dictionaries.

May all your anguish be vanquished,

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